Quintana Roo, Mexico
What makes this site special?
focus on astronomy
This is one of my personal favourites. It is a very calm and serene place and the jungle walk among cohune palms, mahogany, strangler figs, banyans and ceiba trees is truly pleasant. A few structures were devoted to observing astronomical phenomena and I love peeping into the observation methods of the ancient Maya.
It is also the most popular tour in Costa Maya. Costa Maya includes the seaside village of Mahahual, its cruise ship port Puerto Costa Maya, the Bacalar jungle lagoon system, Chetumal (the capital city of Quintana Roo state) and the entry into Belize. Tourists are taken to these ruins when their cruise ship lands in Mahahual. But this should not discourage you as the visit here is certainly worth it.
I came here in September 2017 with my husband Rhod, as we were visiting a row of ruins on the nearby Río Bec Route. I must say I was pleasantly surprised by the site; I found it somehow very pleasing.
Located in the lake region of southern Quintana Roo (with Ocho lake nearby), it is one of those sites where the ecology is as interesting as the archaeology. Look out for those beautiful trees and also deer, peccaries, armadillos or the spider and howler monkeys.
There are three main groups of buildings at this site: Group 1B with Temple 24, Group 1A at the Great Basement Plaza (with four structures) and Group II, which is unexplored. The excavated buildings are dated from 700 AD. The Great Basement Group is elevated from the rest of the site.
To this day no inscriptions referring to the original name of the site have been found so its original name is not known. Researcher Peter Harrison, who was the first to report the site, named it Lázaro Cárdenas, after the nearby village settlement (about 3km from the site). Today's name Chacchoben means in Maya 'the place of red corn'. There is a village of Chacchoben 11km from the site, from which it derives its modern name.
The corn colour depends on its pigment and the colour also depends on the time of harvest. Red corn is a type of sweet corn, nutty in flavour and with 20% more protein than white or yellow corn.
Well, the colours of maize remind me of the Maya colours of the cardinal directions. In fact, that is where the Maya colours of the direction are rooted.
It is the most important settlement found to date in the Lake District of Bacalar. Briefly, the settlement dates from 200 BC to 100 AD.
The earliest human settlements in the area are suspected to date from 1000 BC though the evidence points only to 200 BC. At that time it was just small hamlets around the lake. Most structures that you will see during your visit date between 300-700 AD. First built in the style of the Petén in Guatemala (with rounded corners of the base platforms and monolithic staircases), the city later applied the styles of Río Bec (decorative towers) and Chenes (façades decorated with figureheads). The use of various architectural styles implies a strategic position for this site.
By 360 AD Chacchoben was the most prestigious ceremonial centre with Gran Basamento as its most important ritual plaza (no wonder it is so elevated). The only two stelae with hieroglyphic inscriptions found to date are, sadly, unreadable due to their deterioration. The evidence found so far suggests that the site was abandoned around 1000 AD but in the late Postclassic period (1200-1450 AD), some civic and religious spaces were rehabilitated, which could indicate at least partial repopulation.
The excavated downtown area of Chacchoben was home to about 10,000 Maya. Only 40% of the city has been restored so far. The ceremonial centre of the site covers an area of nearly 6 km2 and this is where the ruler and nobility lived and worked. Apart from the ruler, the nobility included the priests, the administrators (often relatives of the ruler, such as children of his concubines; or his younger brothers), astronomers, architects, warriors, artisans and craftsmen.
The Classic Period (250-900 AD) brought a middle class of traders and artisans; they grew out of the necessity of trade and Chacchoben's ideal position on the trade route between north and south. We don't have the name of the royal dynasty or a noble lineage in Chacchoben.
We were able to see one of the two stelae found here. A stela is a stone slab that celebrates the king and states his achievements (usually birth, marriage, birth of an heir, and war victories).
The stela we saw was eroded but our guide Miguel showed us a printout, to help our imagination. It shows a seated ruler, surrounded by long-count calendar glyphs.
The commoners, such as farmers and hunters, lived on the outskirts in wooden houses with palm leaves for the roof and you can clearly see the dividing wall here in the Way Group, which protected the noble stone houses. The commoners paid tribute (such as food and animal skins) to the noble court. They were hardworking farmers raising corn (maize) together with beans and squash. The three sisters, as this combination is often referred to, did not exhaust the land after one year. Also, in swampy areas they used raised fields and in the forest the slash and burn technique.
Recently, archaeologists have also discovered that the Maya grew manioc, a root that provides a significant amount of carbohydrate in the diet. This discovery solves a longstanding mystery of how the Maya could produce enough nutritious food to feed everyone, considering the land they inhabited and worked with no metal tools or draught animals. They also processed everything that nature gave them: for example, they cut canoes in one piece from a ceiba (kapok) tree, and used its fibre for mattresses for their beds. During a severe drought of nearly one hundred years (in the 9th century) they used the seeds of the ramón tree to make tortillas. It was the only tree that gave them some subsistence without water. I just admire their incredible resilience and the sustainability of their traditional practices. They were also great beekeepers and are producers of wonderful honey even today (I buy my honey only from the Maya now). The ancient Maya cultivated the endemic species of the stingless Melipona bee. They used tree trunks as beehives. Honey was used as a medicine (for respiratory and digestive problems, fevers, wounds, burns, and poisonous stings or bites) and as a sweetener, for example in cacao drinks and fermented beverages (such as the ritual alcohol balché) as the Maya did not have sugar. Even today eleven thousand Yucatecan families practise apiculture as their main source of income. On our walk around the Way Group, we found a tree trunk beehive, exactly how it used to be in the past.
The newer story of the people is also interesting. Archaeological evidence suggests that Chacchoben was still used as a ceremonial centre after it was abandoned, as a number of rituals took place at the abandoned temples. After the arrival of the Spaniards in the 15th century and the eventual conquest of the country, there were major changes in the Maya population, their religion and in general in lifestyle. By 1847 the Maya population went to war against the Mexican Federation for control of the Yucatán Peninsula. This was known as the Caste War of Yucatán. During the 50 years of the war, a number of atrocities were committed as entire towns were burned down, forcing the Maya families to abandon their homes and flee from the conflict areas into the territory of British Honduras (former British Colony, today's Belize) and into Guatemala. It is during these years of conflict that the rituals and visits to Chacchoben stopped.
The recent human history of Chacchoben started in 1942 when Serviliano Cohuo, a Yucatec Maya man looking for the perfect spot for his farm, accidentally came across the temples in ruins and decided to settle down there. Over the years Serviliano Cohuo built his home at the base of Gran Basamento plaza.
In 1972 the Cohuo family hosted Peter Harrison, an American archaeologist leading a project sponsored by Tulane University, at their home. He was the first professional archaeologist to visit Chacchoben. He made the first maps of the site and reported Chacchoben ruins to the Mexican Government.
In 1974 Quintana Roo was declared a new Mexican State, and the new government started regulating possession of the land. In 1978, Serviliano Cohuo was designated honorary guard of Chacchoben and was granted his right to his farm, where he lived for the rest of his days. The Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) started excavating in 1994. The land was expropriated from the Cohuo family after Serviliano's death, and the restored complexes were officially opened to the public in 2002.
Today's inhabitants live mostly in the nearby village of the same name. We went there by mistake when looking for the turn-off for the ruins (on the opposite side of the main road). The village people are poor, like everywhere else in Yucatán, but still resilient. I always wonder how they make it, with so little work opportunity in the countryside. Resilience seems to be embedded in their blood. The village is very colourful with some jolly murals. Murals have a strong tradition in Mexico (think Diego Rivera) but are unusual in Yucatec rural villages. Apparently this art project was initiated by Carmen Mondragón; her project was called 'pueblerismo'. She realised that the village was far away from any form of art and introduced this idea here. I find it fitting, because ancient murals were found at the ruin site here and the same artist attempted a reconstruction of the ancient mural (see her painting in the Mystery section). I like the fact that she extended her help to the local village, to boost social engagement within the community.
Our ruin guide Miguel Angel lives in Chacchoben village, with his wife, who looks after their children. They have twins and he spoke about them with love. I was moved to hear him appreciating his wife's work as a housekeeper and a child-minder. He is completely aware of how hard it is to look after two small twins and he did not have an inch of a macho approach in himself. A very modern man in that sense! Otherwise, like a true Yucatec, his roots are traditional; he is deeply rooted in Yucatán and he feels connected to the land here. His father moved to Chacchoben for work from another Yucatec village as 20 years ago work was not easy to find in Yucatán. He worked in the tropical forest as a chiclero, collecting chicle (natural gum) from zapote and chicle trees. Chicle may have come from the Mayan word tsicte. The ancient Maya invented the gum, by tapping the tree trunks with zig-zag gashes, collecting the dripping gum in bags and then boiling it. Since ancient times, the gum was chewed as a way to stave off hunger, freshen the breath, and keep the teeth clean. It was also used as a filling for tooth cavities. Chewing was a private matter; apparently it was not allowed in public! Today most gum companies have switched to synthetic rubber so the chiclero profession is slowly dying in Yucatán. Miguel wisely switched to guide work but to do so, he had to attend courses and pay for his licence and not everybody can afford it here. Furthermore, he does not get clients every day (bear that in mind when you are paying him) so he also raises chickens and turkeys on a small family field near the ruin. His story reminds me of Serviliano Cohuo, the late farmer at the ruin site.
The Focus: The Great Basement
The ritual heart of the city was the Great Basement. It is a set of buildings sitting on a large elevated platform and you will need to climb the staircase to get to its plaza. Here you will find Temple 1, Temple of the Vessels (Las Vasijas) and the Twin Temples (Los Gemelos).
You can climb up to the top of Temple One for spectacular views of the surrounding jungle. Temple One was Chacchoben's astronomical hub. It served as a calendar to mark dates associated with equinoxes and solstices, probably to indicate the beginning of agricultural periods. The stucco and the paint have been destroyed with time but we have to imagine it as a painted building. Well, I always do.
Miguel offered us a reconstruction image, which I am sharing here. It seems to have the Witz (Mountain) monster image on the temples (one on top of the pyramid and the other at the bottom). I can't speculate if the artist just used his imagination and used the most frequent Maya art motifs (of the mountain monster) or if the painting was based upon some evidence.
If this monster image was indeed on the temple, then it would have marked this pyramid as the sacred mountain, where deceased kings were buried. Here they would have entered the underworld and started their journey towards rebirth, going up the mountain to the sky (heaven). It is the story of the resurrection and immortality of the king.
On the day of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, for about five minutes one can see the light shining through the opening at the top of this 18m tall pyramid on the high plaza to the right of the stairs. The winter solstice is celebrated all over the world even today but the Maya really made a point of tracking the movement of the sun. Without it, they would not have been able to create the complex, precise calendars that they did.
Even more exciting is a rock with a small hole on the left side of the staircase that leads to the Great Basement, as it is an unusual way of tracking the sun’s path. Miguel explained that on the day of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, you can see the light of the setting sun shining directly through that hole in the rock.
How did the astronomers think of putting that rock on the stairs to show the phenomenon? Clever, wouldn't you agree?
Temple of the Vessels (Temple de Las Vasijas) would have been an important part of the ceremonial centre at the Great Basement. Miguel showed us an artistic reconstruction of the building, painted red. This particular reconstruction picture shows images of rulers sitting on each side of the temple door (on top of the pyramid) and the motifs of stepped frames and monster masks. Stepped frames (V-shape pattern, zigzagged) were very common in Maya art. In Linda Schele's view, they represent the mountain cleft, i.e. the place of creation. This is where life was born. This symbol tells the story of the Maya Maize God (who created mankind). When he died, he traversed the underworld and then came back to life through the cleft of a turtle (which was cracked for him by Chac, the God of Rain). It is also the symbol of the 'birth' of maize every season, and therefore a symbol of seasons and fertility.
Another symbol of birth is from the sculpture found here that Miguel showed us. The photo below (on the right) shows a creature (primordial crocodile?) with an open jaw and a human emerging from its jaw. This is a classic Maya scene showing the birth of a king or a god. More often it is from the serpent's mouth (serpents were the symbol of life and birth) but crocodile jaws were also used frequently.
The Mystery: Mural at Temple 24
Temple 24 is the first building on arrival, so you can't miss it. It held rituals and public ceremonies in the adjacent fields. If you look closely, you will notice that each side of the temple has a slightly different construction, with different public events occurring on each side. For instance, the façades facing north and south were essentially the equivalent of a government building for public tasks like punishing criminals and collecting taxes.
The east side of this structure overlooked a large amphitheatre, destined for large shows (dance rituals and possibly even human sacrifice). The bleachers allowed for the viewing of the events.
The east corner is intriguing because ancient murals were found here. They are so damaged that we don't know exactly what they represented. You can see them although they are cordoned off. They are not covered by a palapa roof, which will perhaps damage them even more (the sun is strong here all year round). I heard from some friends who came here, that their guide explained that the mural depicts a famous war among the different tribes but it is not clear which war. Miguel suggested that the site was defeated by Chichén Itzá. We don't know about the relationship with the nearby Maya cities of Dzibanché, Kinichná, or Kohunlich. Could they have been in wars with them? For that matter, Dzibanché has the infamous Stairway of the Captives, and it is not known where the portrayed war captives are from.
According to our guide Miguel, the mural shows the astronomical position of the planet Venus, which seems more likely to me. He showed us a painted reconstruction of the mural by María Eugenia Romero. It is full of X-patterns, known as cross band, a very frequent motif in Maya art. It has symbolised the sky, ever since Olmec times. It was often worn by the king on his chest, which made him divine. If placed on a head, it represented a deity.
But the cross symbolism is more complex than that. In Maya art there are two sorts of crosses used (+ and x), corresponding with the place of the crossing of the ecliptic and the Milky Way. On the sacred Tree of Life, the vertical cross (+) represents the Milky Way and the diagonal (x) is the Ecliptic Cross (which shows the sun's path during the year).
In the mural we can see small upright crosses intersecting the diagonal crosses of the sky. Together, when two four-pointed crosses are intersected, they create an eight-pointed cross and represent the crossing of the ecliptic (the sun's path) and galactic (Milky Way). I can also see the eight-pointed little crosses in the upper band of the mural. Next to them I can see spiny zigzags. To my knowledge, such zigzags usually represented an undulating serpent body. A serpent was a symbol of life and, above all, it served as a conduit for passing through to the sky (heavens). It represents the ecliptic that connects the pyramid to the Milky Way. So these symbols seem to match, although I can't see any glyph of Venus. Saying so, we don't really know how the Maya recorded the positions of Venus.
I could suggest a connection between the two mural meanings, that of the war and the position of Venus, but bear in mind that this is my own speculation. Some scientists (Schele, Friedl) now agree that the Maya began timing their battles at particular points in the Venus cycle (especially the first appearance of the evening star). Venus was considered the sun’s twin and a war patron. Decisions about when and where to do battle became tied to the rise of Venus and Jupiter. Wars were timed by the stars (yes, the Maya invented the star wars!). For example, the murals at Bonampak illustrate a war victory on 16 August 792 AD, within a day or two of the heliacal rise of Venus, when the planet emerges from the light of the sun. The heliacal rise for the ancient Maya was a moment of dread and hysteria.
When Venus rose as the morning star, people stopped up their chimneys so that no harm from its light could get into their houses. The heliacal rising occurs annually. Could this mural aim at showing a heliacal position of Venus? Or could it be a 'superior' or 'inferior' conjunction of Venus? A 'superior' conjunction is when the planet appears to be in the same place in the sky as the sun but is behind the sun, from our point of view on earth.
An 'inferior' conjunction is when the planet is in front of the sun, or between earth and the sun. Apparently, the captured Seibal ruler was sacrificed at a ritual ball game 12 years later, at the inferior conjunction of Venus. They waited for 12 years for the right moment! Would the same fate await the captives here?
Don't Miss: The Ways Group
The walk around the site is circular and very pleasant. The best photo opportunities are by the low structures in Plaza Las Vias (the Ways Group). It was probably a residence for the nobles, separated by a wall, as I already mentioned. Inside it you can see low masonry platforms, which may have supported rooms with perishable materials. The steps lead from the large plaza to low-rise administrative and residential buildings.
THE SITE MAP
The site is open from 8:00am-5:00pm, Monday to Sunday.
The entry fee is $55 pesos.
There are bathrooms, a shop, a café and a stall with typical Yucatec snacks. Locals from Chacchoben village offer handmade souvenirs; they sit outside the ruin site. In places like Chacchoben, you are expected to negotiate the prices, so be ready barter (but be fair)!
For our guide in Spanish we paid $600 pesos; for an English guide expect a fee of around $800 pesos. Don't barter with the guides; they deserve every penny.
To avoid the cruise-ship crowds, the best time to visit is early morning or late afternoon.
How to get there:
Chacchoben is 165km south of Tulum, 85km from Chetumal, and 3km from the town of Lázaro Cárdenas. When travelling from the Riviera Maya or Costa Maya, take Hwy 307 to Hwy 293. The Chacchoben archaeological site is located just 3km north-west of Lázaro Cárdenas, not near the village of Chacchoben. Most people head to Chacchoben, as soon as they see the road sign (like we did), but that is a mistake (unless you want to see those village murals). Once you drive through Lázaro Cárdenas you will see the ruins on the west side of the road. There are pineapple ladies who sell whole and cut pineapple on the road before you reach the turn-off to the ruins. The freshest pineapple you will ever taste!
You can also take a bus to Limones or Pedro Santos and then a private taxi to the site – approximately $200 pesos. Ask the taxi driver to return.
Mix & Match
We stayed at the village of Xpujil, which is a good option if you are visiting more sites on the Río Bec route, such as Calakmul or Chicanná. Another alternative is to combine with a visit to Dzibanché.
Coe, Michael D. and Houston, Stephen (2015), The Maya, Thames and Hudson Ltd
Houston, Stephen D. (1994), Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington